Janna Urschel is a PhD student in English at the University at Albany, where she is the prose editor for the university's graduate literary arts journal, Barzakh. Janna is currently at work on a creative dissertation in short fiction. She has been published in Mamalode and Ladybug Magazine

"At the moment the author making me hurt most deliciously (my rubric for what constitutes a "favorite") is Francis Ponge, a 20th century French writer who innovated with form, blurring and blending prose and poetry.

His mode of calling attention to the mundane and overlooked realm of the nonhuman brings me into a new relationship with, well, every Thing. For me, this is an ethical project of reconfiguration for better being in/of the world, and he's a great midwife for delivering me into a productive muddle.

Oh! And Kelly Link, who is uproarious and provocative and sensuous and startles me into new possibility."

Albany's "New Colossus"

By Janna Urschel

Throughout the day on Saturday, September 29, hundreds of vendors and thousands of bibliophiles set University at Albany's Campus Center to buzz from top to bottom, as readers and writers, myself included, found each other through story, testament, and poetry.

In this inaugural book festival, Albany came alive in celebrating its own “Colossus,” a figure rich in poetry and potential for gathering in and together, as described by Colson Whitehead and Alicia Ostriker during their induction as New York State's 33rd Author Laureate and Poet Laureate, respectively.

 

The theme and tenor of their talk Friday evening couldn't have been more apt as they drew upon the imagery of the “Colossus of New York,” which Ostriker referenced in her reading of Emma Lazarus' nation-defining tribute, New Colossus and Whitehead in reading from his novel Colossus of New York. Both New York born-and-raised authors reveled in the multi-layered histories, trials, and potentials of New York City. They considered the city especially in its role as a gateway to new lives for newcomers, who become folded into the textures of the city and provocatively redefine its rhythms.

Whitehead's reading evoked the strata of ghosts of bygone neighborhood businesses that create a kaleidoscopic memoryscape unique to each new denizen and each generation in the city. In a move that channeled Proust, Whitehead mused on how each of those geographically-written stories of the city is preserved in memory: “the disappeared [pizza] parlor is still here because you're here.” Each newcomer adds his or her own city into the weave of bygone cities, becoming opaque and invisible by turns.

Ostriker likewise probed the continual effervescent re-writing of the city along cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and gender lines as her readings from her own poetry entered into direct conversation with Emma Lazarus and Edna St. Vincent Millay, from whom she also read. In her closing poem, America the Beautiful, Ostriker traced the fracture lines of invisibility and divisibility of the nation, about which she continues to nurture the hope for grace engendered in Lazarus' poem.

Despite Ostriker's apology for “getting political,” it is reassuring to hear the creative powerhouses representing the creative capital of the nation

spare no occasion to speak out for the “divisibles and invisibles” of the

University at Albany President Havidán Rodríguez with Colson Whitehead and Alicia Ostriker at the induction ceremonies for the State Author and State Poet on Friday, Sept. 28, at UAlbany's Campus Center Ballroom. 

nation who suffer under unjust anti-immigration policies and brutal inequity. This is the type of conversation extolled as the founding purpose of the New York State Writers' Institute in the documentary that opened the evening's inauguration: using the written word as a spur for making connections across history and across ideologies, on topics of imminent concern, and, as Alicia Ostriker emphasized more than once, it is reason to hope.

This mission of the Writers Institute for connection and conversation were in full swing during the book festival on Saturday. One such moment of connection for me took the form of an intimate workshop with acclaimed author Eugene Garber, wherein he unrolled his decades-long path as a writer in his unhurried and personable southern drawl.

 

He revealed, for example, that early in his career, he wrote four novels which were all rejected for publication and still have never seen the light of day. He chuckled while musing that this was a very good thing. When asked what was wrong with those novels, Garber replied that he “hadn't yet found the kind of writing that opens the secret door into where the unconscious is.”

 

This kind of writing, when “words become resonant” and you “follow your nose,” he maintained, is the kind of writing to strive for, not the kind that proceeds from conscious efforts to emulate bygone heroes or catch the pulse of a current trend. To write well, writers need to find their fit for genre and mode, even if it flies in the face of the self-evident truths of the leading lights of the literati, because, as he laid bare by tracing his own navigation of shifting historical trends, tastes inevitably change.

Garber knows this first-hand. Early in his own career, he spent time chasing the shadow of his first idol, Thomas Wolfe (inevitable, he said, for a young southern man), while at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Later he was advised that his chances of publication would remain nil unless he could get on the Chekhov train then popular as a model for short fiction. He spent a decade trying to write under these constraints, until he experienced an epiphany through encounters with the work of the eccentric and irrepressible Isak Dinesen, Jorge Luis Borges, Edgar Allen Poe, and E.T.A. Hoffmann, enabling him to envision his own path outside the confines of realism and formalism then dominating literary conversation.

As a writer in the early stages of my own career, hearing Garber's accounts of how he came to find his niche gives me much-needed permission to hit the mute button on the siren song of market forces and prescriptive texts on craft, and instead to place my trust in that urgent voice at my still center – a voice that for me sparks in recognition when reading kindred like Kelly Link, Ramona Ausubel, and Italo Calvino (though anyone who cites Borges always and immediately likewise becomes kin).

 

Hearing from a writer who has experienced the push and pull of multiple waves of inconstant tastes and values in the literary world and weathered them because of, not despite, following his nose while ignoring the pronouncements of the gatekeepers, was manna for me as I try out a motley assortment of keys to find the way in to my own “secret door into the unconscious.”

At the end of this bustling two-day celebration, I have walked away with an armful of new books to read, new courage for getting my own writing done in my own way, and a new residue of hope catalyzed by fertile conversations. Perhaps most satisfying of all, however, is the simple fact that there were just so many people who showed up. So many people who still read books, enjoy books, write books, share books. So many people for whom the written word is still relevant and provocative and satisfying in a digital era when those “connections” I keep harping on about are touted by the remote staccato of Instas and Snaps rather than across the slow medium of sensual paper and ink.

 

And it is precisely this slowness that is of primary value in the act of reading and of writing. Words have histories, are histories, connect us to those layered histories invoked by Whitehead and Ostriker. The texts that are wrought out of these storied words talk to each other and to us in dense histories of reference and play. To make sense (I say here not “of human experience” because there is so much more than ourselves that we are tasked with making sense of), we have to slow down and imbibe word by word in conversation with history and with each other.

 

This is what a book is in its reading and writing: a slowness that both builds me and peels me back layer by layer. As a reader and a writer, I become Whitehead's city, re-made by each new encounter so that I can hope to be the kind of force for grace Ostriker invokes.

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